Cellular networks have been helping us stay in touch for years through phone calls, messaging applications, and social media. But cellular technology has evolved beyond simply connecting us with our contacts. It has become inseparable in operations across industries, from healthcare to agriculture and manufacturing.
While deciding to implement cellular IoT is simple, creating an enterprise-level network is far more complicated. Connecting the many puzzle pieces that make up a network can be challenging, and you must ensure that each piece operates efficiently to meet enterprise needs.
This article explores how cellular IoT works, its parts, and what you need to know before implementing it into your organization.
How IoT cellular connectivity works
IoT cellular connectivity works by connecting devices to a base station to which they transmit information. For example, the antennas you see on city rooftops are the base stations of a cellular network. A group of base stations is called a RAN (radio access network).
RANs connect devices or users to the operators’ networks, also called mobile network operators (MNOs), including providers such as Vodafone, AT&T, MTN, and SignTel. The operator’s core network then links the devices to external networks, like other networks or the cloud. This system also allows operators to connect to each other.
The different types of IoT cellular networks
Cellular technology has grown and changed; over time, various iterations of network technologies have developed, each with its benefits and uses. Some enterprises may even use more than one type of network to meet their needs. Below, we break down the most common types used in cellular IoT:
2G, 3G, and 4G
2G and 3G have been helpful in the development of IoT, primarily due to their low costs, good coverage, and developed global infrastructure. But legacy technologies can’t keep up with evolving demands forever. With new technology such as 4G and 5G becoming more established, we can afford to retire 2G and 3G, and both are slowly being phased out of use.
4G is still widely used. The technology allows devices to connect wirelessly by using the LTE radio standard to connect cellular devices. 4G is an excellent network for IoT as it provides reliable and wireless connectivity, making activities such as wireless surveillance, remote device activation, and connecting various devices possible.
LTE-M (long-term evolution machine type communication) is compatible with 4G and the second generation of the LTE Cat.0 technology, reducing operator CapEx. This advanced form of connectivity is explicitly designed to support IoT activities, particularly mobile IoT devices. Its benefits include low latency (higher uplink and downlink speeds), eSIM adoption (supports Over the Air updates), long battery life, and low power consumption.
It is ideal for low-power applications requiring medium throughput. The latency is in the millisecond range offering real-time communication for time-critical applications. LTE-M is perfect for medium-throughput applications requiring low power, low latency, and/or mobility, like asset tracking, wearables, medical, POS, and home security applications
NB-IoT (Narrow Band- IoT) is a technology that helps organizations engage in IoT with low power and data usage benefits. Like LTE-M, it’s compatible with 4G networks and offers similar benefits. In addition to low energy consumption, NB-IoT offers long battery life (over ten years), high scalability, and reliable connectivity. Unlike LTE-M, however, NB-IoT doesn’t support Over the Air updates and offers higher latency transfers. Plus, it requires specific hardware, which may increase operator CapEx. This technology is ideal for applications that require low bandwidth, rely on long-lasting batteries, and only need to transfer low amounts of data, such as sensors, energy meters, and environmental sensors like weather and wind.
ShorLong-Termg Term Evolution Category 1, LET-1 is a category of 4G LTE technology. It was standardized in 2018 and serves IoT-specific use cases. LTE-1 provides strong coverage and connection reliability as it is available anywhere that 4G is available. Its large frequency band of 20Mhz makes it ideal for networks that require higher bandwidths. Plus, it offers great data throughout (maximum speeds of 10 megabytes-per-second (Mb/s) for downlink and 5Mb/s for uplink), making it suitable for various IoT use cases, including video streaming or aggregated data transmission.
While 4G represents the current status of IoT in many ways, 5G represents the future. As more cell providers switch to 5G, more opportunities open up in the cellular IoT sector. 5G takes the technology of 4G to a new level by using significantly higher bandwidths and shorter wavelengths to transfer data faster, further, and more precisely than ever before. 5G is an even better option for IoT networks, as it supports IoT activities, such as industrial automation, smart cities, and manufacturing developments that allow more remote processes. Both LTE-M and NB-IoT, the technologies we mentioned above, will keep being supported in 5G.
Benefits of IoT cellular connectivity
Cellular IoT combines the efficiency of IoT with the benefits of cellular networks. The inherent security and consistent connectivity of cellular technology make it the perfect foundation for IoT technology. The functionality of IoT technology rests on its reliability. For many use cases, such as power plant safety operations or sensitive government processes, a loss of connectivity could have disastrous results.
Cellular IoT devices often transfer sensitive or essential data, making security important. As a result, cellular IoT networks have a wide range of security options, including VPNs, firewalls, and other security protocols. Cellular IoT is also more affordable than many other connectivity options in places where cellular network infrastructure already exists. Users only need to pay for the data they use by selecting suitable configurations or using customized plans.
The 6 key elements of IoT cellular connectivity
IoT cellular connectivity has a wide range of applications across industries, but there are several foundational elements that all networks share. These foundations are:
1. Distributed architecture
IoT is becoming increasingly complex, with more and more connected devices. A distributed architecture may be needed to support high-volume networks and facilitate data transmission and processing between thousands of devices. Distributed architectures comprise Edge and Core.
Edge computing is a type of distributed computing that brings computation closer to the data source. Instead of all data being processed in one centralized network, some data can be processed in local environments, such as a computer, an IoT gateway, or an edge server. This enables quick analysis and reduces latency and bandwidth consumption. Even in a distributed architecture, enterprises can rely on their core infrastructure for central connectivity and analysis. Processing can take place centrally or at the edge of the network.
Bandwidth, or network bandwidth, is the maximum limit of data a network can transmit. These transmissions can be through wired or wireless channels. Bandwidth is generally measured in frequencies, the most common being kilobits, megabits, and gigabits.
Many people confuse bandwidth with network speed. Unlike network speed, bandwidth doesn’t refer to the speed at which a network can transfer data; instead, it relates to the amount of data it can transfer within a specific time. Higher bandwidth means that higher amounts of data can be transmitted in a shorter time, while low bandwidth carries less data and requires more time for transmission. Selecting the right technology depending on your devices’ bandwidth needs is essential. NB-IOT and LTE-M are fit for low bandwidth, while LTE-1 is preferred for higher bandwidth.
3. Power consumption
In 2016, a software bug in Nest Learning Thermostats drained the battery of thousands of Nest devices, making users stand in the cold in the middle of a freezing January. The incident was resolved quickly, but this story perfectly illustrates how essential battery life and power consumption are to any IoT network.
Devices that don’t meet requirements become a liability for your organization or, at worst, are entirely useless. Some devices have battery lives of up to 10 years, but remaining aware of each device’s limit is essential to avoid disruptions in the network caused by power loss. Battery power is particularly important if your devices are spread over a large area. In addition to the device battery, in such cases, it is important to select the right cellular technology. For instance, NB-IoT is the best fit when a small periodical amount of data is being transferred.
Security is one of the primary concerns surrounding IoT networks, and both the infrastructure and individual devices need to be protected. Cellular IoT security uses a system or combination of various technologies to protect the network and its devices from cyber threats. Although cellular technology is one of the most secure connectivity technologies, it is still vulnerable to attacks.
Cyber threats targeting IoT networks are on the rise. In the first half of 2021, 1.5 billion IoT breaches occurred, proving that no one is immune. Due to its dual vulnerabilities, cybercriminals view IoT networks as easy targets, making it even more critical to protect them.
Various solutions are available to protect cellular IoT networks. These include hardware, software or cloud-based security solutions, and connectivity management platforms that protect both the network and the devices that are a part of it, such as FirstPoint.
5. Reliability & Coverage
Reliability is crucial for IoT networks of any size, regardless of goals or lifespan. Downtime means that your IoT isn’t functioning as an “internet,” and your devices cannot connect. Reliability is especially critical for industries that deal with human life or security, such as safety monitors, medical devices, health trackers, and rescue drones. Network failure for these applications can lead to the loss of human life. Even less critical projects, such as analytics, rely on reliability to receive the data they need to perform their operations.
Coverage is another factor to keep in mind, as devices may need to communicate indoors and outdoors or even in difficult-to-reach places, such as deep underground. Coverage is particularly important for devices in hard land conditions or devices in transit. Cellular networks are very reliable; thus, they are suitable for even the most complex IoT projects.
IoT requires a complex infrastructure to support its operations. Additionally, different IoT providers serve various industries, each with its charges and pricing system. Analysts predict that the median price paid for cellular connectivity per year will drop to $1 by 2025. Despite this significant decrease, you still have ongoing maintenance costs to consider. These additional costs include adding other software, such as connectivity management and security tools.
This is why selecting the most cost-efficient tools is incredibly important. Some connectivity management systems such as FirstPoint can significantly lower the overall cost as they assist in getting wholesale contracts from operators instead of paying for mobile services for each device separately.
Protect your business’s cellular IoT
Many of the challenges of cellular IoT networks can be easily avoided by finding software solutions that mitigate them. FirstPoint is an IoT connectivity management platform that allows you to manage, secure, and scale your network quickly and easily. FirstPoint offers network-level protection and secures each device individually, ensuring that your network and each device are fully protected. Request a demo to see how we can help you.